How did you come to write this novel? Was there an idea or experience that inspired you?
I was playing around with the beginnings of a novel, not really focused on anything in particular, when a dear friend of mine got cancer and died. This is not exactly a unique occurrence, of course, but it felt that way to me at the time; it took me at once very far away from the novel, from all novels, and sent me back in. A line from Walker Percy kept running through my head: "There's no re-entry from the orbit of transcendence." I began to test that out.
Obvious question, but with whom do you identify most, Teddy or Oren?
When I began the book I was in my early mid-forties, so the mathematics of splitting myself into two people, a thirty year old and a fifty year old, felt pretty natural. Since then I've, uh, tilted a bit in Teddy's direction, so I suppose he has more of my sympathies at the moment. Being a younger man, all dressed up with nowhere to go, seems a relatively cushy and weightless condition, one I'm not even nostalgic for, despite if not because of the fact that I suffered from it for a really long time.
In the first chapter of the book, you write about Teddy’s love for explorers and that he considers himself to be "on the trail of an encoded truth." How would you define the truth Teddy seeks? Is the journey he takes more about escaping something or discovering something?
That's the question, all right.
Speaking of Teddy's journey, why Africa? Did you travel to the places that Teddy did?
I did go to Ethiopia, twice in fact, though for reasons unconnected to this novel, and never to Afar. As for why Africa, and not, say, Bali, or Patagonia, or Iceland, I'm not sure I can answer that. I wanted to put him in an extreme environment, and I'd been reading a lot of Conrad and Waugh; I suppose on some level Africa seemed, for him and for me, the most intimidatingly foreign place imaginable, and also at the same time, in some larger, atavistic species sense, home.
In its starred review of the book, Publishers Weekly wrote, "it is Gail who acts as the novel's fulcrum." Is that an accurate description of Gail's role in the novel? She seems immune to the anxiety and floundering that trouble the men in her life. Was that a conscious choice? What does her character represent?
I don't know that she's immune to anxiety but unlike the men there's less room in her life, in her temperament, to indulge it. In that sense she provides a natural foil, and/or a kind of moving target for the projections of the men around her.
When Oren and his students are discussing Hawthorne, they talk about the "meridian of life," the "middle point." You are, in essence, writing this book at your own "middle point." How would you define the "meridian of life"? Is it a matter of age or experience?
If I could articulate that answer I'd never have had to, never wanted to, write a novel about it. Sometimes it's better for the writer to be just a little bit stupid and clumsy, I think. No answers, just more questions.
Would you describe your writing process? How do you work best? How did writing this novel differ from past novels?
My writing process is like a bad, shaggy-dog joke, a little prank I play on myself, like how slow can you go? In this case, very. No sooner would I finish a chapter then I'd immediately begin revising it. Ditto each page, paragraph, and most of all, each sentence. It was a fiesta of fussiness, of negative capability and narrative indirection. We have one coffee shop in this town and I'd start out every day at the same back table, grumbling to myself, always the same indie-emo music looping through the speakers like Groundhog Day, while around me my more prolific colleagues kept merrily hitting their Send buttons and shooting me concerned looks, like, you're not still on that same project, are you? But I was. In the end it took me over six years, and probably ten drafts, and only in the last two did it become at all wieldy or conceptually coherent. And even now I have my doubts.
As for writing in coffee shops, I never did it before and I won't ever do it again, probably, but I got into a rhythm of sorts and then got superstitious about it, the white noise and music and so on.